Shakespeare's First Folio: The Book That Changed History

A brief exploration of Shakespeare’s First Folio

Whether you’re an avid theater fan, bookworm, or just your average joe, you’ve probably heard of William Shakespeare. His plays have had an unrivaled impact on the world of literature, theater, and the English Language, and we have the First Folio to thank for all that. Shakespeare’s First Folio preserved 36 of the Bard’s dramatic works including 18 that might otherwise have vanished into the mists of history, making it possible for us to continue to enjoy his work some 400 years after its first publication. 

What Exactly is a Folio?

In essence, a folio is a printing technique. Folios are books created by folding a single sheet of paper in half and printing on both sides of the fold, resulting in four pages of text per sheet—similar to the books we’re used to today. At the time, most plays and less significant texts were printed as cheaper Quartos, which involved folding pages twice to get eight printed pages per sheet. In the 17th century, folios were a big deal, reserved for texts like the Bible and important textbooks. Printing Shakespeare’s works as a folio said to the world, “Hey, Shakespeare’s plays are a big deal.”

The Birth of the First Folio

Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, his friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, embarked on a mission to compile and preserve his works for future generations. The result was Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, now commonly referred to as Shakespeare’s First Folio. The Folio was registered for publication on November 8, 1623, meaning we’ve had the privilege of reading and performing these texts for 400 years! 

What’s in the First Folio?

Within the First Folio lies an iconic volume of 36 plays, including his most famous works, from the tragic grandeur of Hamlet to the star-crossed narrative of Romeo and Juliet. Moreover, it successfully preserved 18 of Shakespeare’s plays that were not previously printed anywhere else. 

Without it, we would have lost works like All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale. No biggie, just some of his most famous plays. (Psst. If you want to watch full productions of all 18 of these nearly-lost plays explore our complete Shakespeare Collection

The First Folio opens with a preface written by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson. This short poem accompanies perhaps the most famous portrait of William Shakespeare – the Droeshout portrait engraving.

First Folio in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, USA.

Later in the preface, Ben Jonson pens a more extensive eulogy dedicated to Shakespeare, where he refers to Shakespeare as the ”Sweet Swan of Avon” and a ”Man for All Time.” a testament to his enduring brilliance. To explore this further, you can watch our Shakespeare Master Class hosted by distinguished director Trevor Nunn.   

Sir Trevor Nunn discusses Ben Jonson’s opening eulogy in his Shakespeare Master Class. 

Why is the First Folio so important?

Historical Significance: 

Put simply, Shakespeare’s First Folio is important because it successfully preserved a significant number of his works and made them accessible to the public. Without the Folio, Shakespeare’s brilliant plays might have been lost to history.

The Folio also set a standard for Shakespeare’s works. In the past, many printers took creative liberties, adding or omitting portions, or even publishing their own work under Shakespeare’s name. John Heminges and Henry Condell were careful to stay as close to Shakespeare’s original work as possible which is why the First Folio is widely considered an accurate source for at least 20 of his plays.

Linguistic Insights: 

For all the language enthusiasts out there, the Folio is a treasure trove of valuable insights into the spelling and linguistic nuances of Early Modern English. Not to mention all the familiar words and phrases Shakespeare invented that have made their way into our everyday speech, like ‘’ In a pickle,’’ ‘’break the ice,’’ and ‘’ one fell swoop.’’ 

The famous ” All The World’s a Stage” speech from The Globe’s production of As You Like It.  

Artistic Impact: 

Let’s not forget the impact Shakespeare’s work has had on artists. His plays have served as the inspiration for countless paintings, books, movies, symphonies, and ballets. In particular, his play Romeo and Juliet has inspired hundreds of artistic works including Prokofiev’s beautiful ballet, Tchaikovsky’s sweeping overture, and even Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Recognize this? It’s Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Romeo and Juliet Overture performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra.   

One thing is certain, the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio was a monumental moment in history. It not only preserved Bard’s legacy but also provided us with a memorable portrait of the author, insights into Early Modern English, and a glimpse into how his contemporaries perceived him.

Thanks to this Folio, we have had the privilege of enjoying, performing, and drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s brilliant works for 400 years and counting.

Explore our complete Shakespeare collection
Shakespeare Master Class, hosted by Trevor Nunn
As You Like It from Shakespeare’s Globe
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Explore our Theater Collection

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